Acquainted with the Night

A few posts ago I said I was holding back some material, going instead with other pieces that weren’t quite as dark. One of the pieces I was holding back was this one: Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night.”

This is often thought of as Frost’s most harrowing poem, even though it achieves that effect descriptively, largely without explicit emotional terms. Some of its tropes have become standard “Noir” features since the poem was written making the nighttime despair, loneliness, and alienation especially easy for modern readers to “read.” Here’s a link to the full text if you’d like to read along.

Frosts Acquainted wit the Black Parade

Representative of Frost’s emocore period? Or if you’d like to see a video making the poem more Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, try this link.

 

So, we have the poem’s speaker (let’s call him Frost for the rest of this) walking alone at night in a city in that time which is past late but too dark to be early. It’s raining. He meets only one other person, a watchman, and avoids him. He hears but two things: his own steps, and at the poem’s high point, someone else’s voice. The poem ends with him noting a “luminary clock,” and a remark casual or crucial he says it indicates “the time was neither wrong nor right.”

The incident of the cry in the third stanza is the key moment in the poem, the most telling. It’s so quiet in the rain (so not a full-on stormy gale or thunderstorm) and the cry is so far away that Frost stops walking because the sound of his footsteps is the loudest thing in the night city. He wants to make out that cry, which I think is “interrupted” by his own solitary footsteps. And what does he discern in that cry? That it’s not calling him back or bidding him leave either. Whoever he’s walking to get away from, it’s not their voice, but he wants to know if it is.

This incident is highlighted too because the poem opens with the idea of constant walking: Frost says he walked past the city limits and back. I’m hitting a muted low string on the guitar in my accompaniment to try to suggest that footsteps effect, that Frost is in motion even if he doesn’t know where he’s going.*

The last external thing Frost notices in the poem is the incident of the clock. Interestingly he uses an odd adjective for the lighted clock: “luminary” rather than “lighted” or “luminous.” I assume Frost would like us to think of the clock as an auspicious authority, a luminary, not just lit. I should also note that some see the clock as the moon in this poem. I don’t. I think if he’d wanted to depict the moon he’d say so. The lit clock face is  moon-like, so I can understand that alternate reading, and what with its “unearthly height” Frost likely intends that overtone at least.

The poem is often read as a depiction of depression, and there I’ll agree as well. Depression is experienced by different people in different ways, but the situation here is familiar to me. Depression can confuse your judgement and ability to weigh things. Frost can walk all night because he is in some dispute with someone else (that voice he interrupts his steps to hear) but he’ll never figure it out even if he walks the entire dark city. He may step between self-pity and wanting to be seen as right, and self-abnegation and judging himself irrevocably wrong, but that only gets him out and back again. The luminary clock hands down it’s judgement: Frost, you’ll not figure it out tonight, which means you could return again to this night walk some other night—but it means also that one will be able to return, or turn elsewhere. Over time one may come to understand better that old acquaintance, the night. Roughly 30 years after writing this poem, Frost as a then old man said this to an interviewer “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”

In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”

Some see today’s poem’s luminary clock moment as an existential consideration of suicide. The clock (or moon if that’s your reading) somehow prompts or symbolizes the decision that this night is not the time for that decision. There’s another way to read “neither wrong nor right,” that the clock** indicates only a moment as time, and Frost’s realization about life is that it goes on, that it moves like this poem’s night walk, that that is its meaning: it’s movement.

Let me just say a bit about the poem’s beautiful structure. It’s a sonnet, and it’s a format I’ve used a bit myself lately: four tercets and a concluding couplet rather than the Shakespearean three quatrains and a couplet. But Frost has used Dante’s terza rima scheme of interlocking rhyme in the stanzas, and this knotted interlocking reinforces the endless walking and knotted thinking. And as one more music-of-thought feature, the poem ends with the first line—it walks out and back again just as the poem’s Frost does.

The player gadget to hear my performance of “Acquainted with the Night”  is below. I wouldn’t decorate such a lonely poem with anything more than a single electric guitar this time.

 

 

 

 

*This is also the eventual decision in his famous poem “Stopping by Woods  on a Snowy Evening”  where I believe it’s key to that poem to recognize that he’s not considering tarrying there for some pleasant winter sight-seeing, but that he’s likely lost in a entirely dark rural road and he only thinks/hopes he knows whose woods he’s spotted as a waypoint in the darkest night.

**Yet another plausible meaning for “neither wrong nor right” would be that the traditional clock face might say half past four in the most deserted time of the night, just as it will say the same half past four when 5 PM quitting time approaches in the daytime afternoon. The clock’s face is ignorant or unreliable in that regard. It may be saying it’s time to end this night walk as the night is ending and life and people will return soon at dawn, in the same way it would be saying that it’s time to leave the work of trying to figure out the knot of the dispute before the poem starts, to clock out of the work of the night-office where that question was being worked on.

Frost’s poem doesn’t identify the city the walk is taking place in. For those that hold to the clock theory, London’s Big Ben has been suggested as the clock tower. John Timberman Newcomb in How Did Poetry Survive?  suggests the clock tower of the Metropolitan Life Building, which as the tallest structure in New York City when completed in the early 20th century was a lighted timepiece of unearthly height. Many smaller cities of this time would have had prominent courthouses or main transportation terminals with lighted clock towers too.

For the moon theorists, the time is usually assumed to not be the time of day but a more general “time,” though it’s fairly easy to tell the time at night with a full moon (it’s overhead at midnight, like the sun is at daytime noon). However, “high moon” midnight would not likely be as deserted as the night walk time described in the poem.

To Carthage then I Came

Here’s my performance of the concluding segment of “The Fire Sermon”  portion of “The Waste Land”  which I presented for this year’s National Poetry Month celebration. If you want to hear the earlier sections, they’re all here along with over 300 other audio pieces presenting a variety of poetry combined with original music.

The middle of the “The Fire Sermon”  is one of the few times in “The Waste Land”  when who’s speaking identifies themselves, and where they are allowed to speak more than a single line or so, but as “The Fire Sermon”  concludes here, it’s once again altogether confusing who’s talking. Eliot identifies who’s speaking in his footnotes for the poem as the three Rhinemaidens/river nymphs, who had been singing non-words in the previous section—but without the footnotes* I’d have never guessed that.

Miss_Rheingold_1949

The Rhinemaidens are from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. However, when I hear Rheingold, I think of the New York beer.

 

Even more so than the Typist/Man Carbuncular coupling or the subtle come on from Mr. Eumenides earlier in “The Fire Sermon,”  this is the dirty-book section of the poem. A speaker tells of having sex, flat on their back in a canoe** and furthermore (this may be another speaker/river nymph) tells of another sex act with their “heart under [their] feet.”***

This ends in tears and a question that many who’ve suffered from depression cannot answer from within their hall of dark mirrors: “What should I resent?”

If Eliot’s footnotes are saying it’s just the river nymphs talking, it soon gets specifically personal. The next stanza (“Margate Sands”) refers to the off-season resort where Eliot was taking one of those “rest cures” for his own depression. It wasn’t enough, he next went to a psychiatric hospital “By the waters of [lake] Leman.”

The final stanza (“To Carthage then I came”) is made up of quotes from St. Augustine, who as a teenager traveled to the famous African city to battle his own demons of human sexuality and spirituality, mixed with a refrain from the Buddha’s “Fire Sermon”  which says that all things are burning, consuming any constancy in desire and wanting. Joking doesn’t change what it’s about and what’s at stake: the wheel of suffering. But joking, if observed correctly, is also a demonstration of earthly things passing from significance.

John Fahey

John Fahey. Il miglior fabbro.

 

I performed this seriously as a solo acoustic guitar piece in Sebastopol tuning, using what I once absorbed from the playing of John Fahey, another man who had both demons and angels to laugh at. To hear it, use the player below. If you’d like to read along as I perform it, the whole poem, including this year’s part “The Fire Sermon”  is here.

 

 

 

*At last, I get to write a footnote on the footnotes! Oh, pendant’s delight! Eliot wrote extensive footnotes for the poem that appeared when an American publisher agreed to print a book containing the poem. These footnotes have always been controversial. Ezra Pound said they were only included to pad out the size of the book. Eliot himself said he originally wrote them to properly cite all the literature that he’d sampled in this extensively collaged work of text, and he sometimes expressed regrets at allowing the notes to be published with the poem, making “The Waste Land”  seem some scholarly treatise instead of an anguished cry.

**As the joke goes. “Q: Why is drinking American beer like having sex in a canoe? A: Because it’s f…ing close to water.” Note “The Waste Land”  was written by a serious poet, who was seriously depressed by the world and his life, and in this section he’s using sexual exploitation as image for that. How serious was he? Eliot took lay religious vows which included a vow of chastity just six years after this poem was published. This footnote is included for scholarly purposes only and you shouldn’t laugh at it.

***Class, if we turn to our Kama Sutras that’s page 112, where the person on the bottom is on their stomach and their legs are bent upward so that their feet are over their thorax. Also, there’s the connotation that one’s heart is being stomped on. More pedantic or podiatric joy: a foot note that’s a note on feet.

The (Play with) Fire Sermon

We left “The Waste Land”  last time in certainty and doubt. For one of the few times the narrating voice of a part of “The Waste Land” has given its name. Yet despite the male pronoun I used throughout our last post, that narrator, Tiresias, is noted in mythology as having lived as both a man and a woman. Tiresias tells us as he? observes a loveless evening, a coupling between a typist and a clerk in a lower-middle class London apartment that “I Tiresias have foresuffered all enacted on this same divan or bed.” What does Tiresias mean by that line? That he knew the dreary outcome on account of his ability to foretell the future from listening to the sound of birds? Or does Tiresias mean Tiresias has lived as both a man and a woman, experiencing cold and selfish desires from both sides?

There’s a third possibility: Tiresias is both the typist and the clerk, the man and the woman—or at least as far as Tiresias second sight and bi-gendered history offers wider insight, Tiresias may be living and empathetically experiencing this section in a way that is almost that. In today’s section we stay with the woman (or Tiresias as the woman) and reflect on the aftermath of the tryst. That Eliot makes that choice bears noting.

I’m embarrassingly unfamiliar with most of Eliot’s later work after “The Waste Land,”  but by reputation and summary I’m unaware that gender fluidity features much in it, just as I’m unaware of any later works featuring a distinctly woman’s outlook. Eliot’s own romantic and inner emotional life has been subject to much conjecture, but at this point in time, influenced perhaps by his marriage and his wartime experiences teaching working-class women, he seems open to making an effort. Of course that doesn’t mean happy and fulfilled women, “The Waste Land”  features no creatures of any gender like that.

The title of this section of “The Waste Land,” “The Fire Sermon”  references a key lecture of the Buddha where he lists and describes all sensory inputs as burning, by which he means they are contaminated by inconstant and misleading desires. But as Eliot continues in painting his grubby and lifeless London, his portrait is largely passionless—sex and sexual matters are most often at the level of a business exchange. Eliot’s is not a straightaway dramatization of Buddha’s sermon, nor of the state of superseded desire Buddha preached as The Way. It is, however, a portrait of how a depressed individual views the world. Buddhists believe attachments to things desired brings suffering. Depressives may have achieved their state in reverse: suffering, they believe that nothing desired will bring joy.

Only at the end of today’s segment does any beauty sneak in. The narrator recalls being outside a bar, hearing music, and seeing “inexplicable splendor” in the interior of an old church. Where does it go from here? We’ll return to “The Waste Land”  later this month and take things up from there.

A moment in the glass, a record on the gramophone.

 

 

Musically today, I couldn’t resist a connection between “The Fire Sermon”  and its air of unsatisfying sexual barter and one of the earliest successful songs written by Jagger and Richards of the Rolling Stones: “Play with Fire.”  I played off that song’s chorus riff somewhat, but my piece is so slowed down that it sounds like a 45 rpm single being played at 33 1/3 rpm. To hear my performance of the section of “The Fire Sermon”  I call “The (Play with) Fire Sermon,”  use the gadget below. To follow along with the text of the poem, it’s here.

Let me also mention that if the grim details of our exploration of “The Waste Land”  isn’t to your taste, we have well over 300 other pieces here where we combine other words with original music in various styles.

 

Madame Sosostris

Look at a picture of T. S. Eliot. Chances are you’ll see a proper English gentleman looking back at you. You might suspect a teacher, or if not that, a bank officer. By the time he wrote “The Waste Land”  he’d been both, and the later job was considered by some in the Modernist circle a small scandal from which he needed to be rescued. Respectable, English, settled—you would trust him with your money or your child’s education.

T S Eliot looking very donish

T. S. Eliot in costume to play Harry Potter’s great-grandfather

 

Eventually Eliot became a British citizen, a confirmed Anglican Church believer, and a canonized poetic figure. So that man in the picture is what he intended to become. But the man who wrote “The Waste Land” wasn’t him yet, even if he could dress up as him for a portrait. What he was, was a thirtysomething American trying to engage a European culture that itself was now refugee after an unprecedented World War, a man also in a disastrous marriage and suffering from “doctor’s orders” depression.

Except for the World War part, one could, from some standpoints, look at this and file Eliot’s situation under “first-world problems, see also: middle-class white male.” And while WWI had profoundly changed Europe, Eliot seems to not have had any direct experience with the war, unlike many of the Modernist circle, so you could add to that “survivor’s guilt.” Let’s just center in on that depression part. That’s apropos, depressives are often told that their real situation is not as bad as all that.

I’ll blindly wager that many, probably most, reading this have suffered at some time from depression. Considered as a disease or syndrome, it’s a very common one, like aging or pregnancy—it’s not some rare, god-sent, lightning strike calamity. Yet, that’s not how it’s most often experienced. A depressed person feels trapped in themselves. One thing that is common to many in depression is the distrust of any judgement or decision. Whether it’s your own, or some outside others’, whether it’s a judgment of praise or damnation, you distrust that it’s true and fear that it is.

The Hanged Man

Is he being punished, or just looking at the world another way?

 

As we reach the “Madame Sosostris” section of “The Waste Land”  we meet a fortune teller, a line of work that should be helpful to one in this depressive trap. In Eliot’s intended scheme for the poem, she serves as a Deus ex Machina to introduce, as part of a pseudo Tarot card reading, some mythological themes of the poem. But if we are to understand the emotional core of “The Waste Land,”  which is the poetic expression of a person suffering from depression, the undercutting of her authority begins right away. If Madame Sosostris is some kind of enlightened and advanced being, she’s suffering from a mundane head cold. Her patter as she reads the cards is perfunctory, only occasionally rising to the level of oracular obscurantism, and she all to quickly jumps out of her clairvoyant trance to the details of delivering some work for the comically named “Mrs. Equitone.” There’s no relief, no reliable guidance here.

To hear my performance of  “Madame Sosostris”  from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  use the player below. We’ll be returning to “The Waste Land”  as April, National Poetry Month (#npm2018) continues, but our next post will be celebrating a special milestone in the Parlando Project.

 

My Childhood Home I See Again

Tomorrow is celebrated in the United States as Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday—or rather, it was in the past. In 1971, a uniform Monday holiday, often called President’s Day, centralized what had been in the past dual, separate, celebrations of Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s.

Washington (as poet Phillis Wheatley’s motto for him said) was first in war and first in peace, and we owe him a great debt for being the rare revolutionary leader that did not try to crown his success with dictatorship. But Lincoln’s achievements are every bit Washington’s equal; though his central achievement, a US government that no longer enforced chattel slavery throughout the country has in recent decades been somewhat obscured for complex reasons.

But here at the Parlando Project, where we combine music with words, Lincoln gets extra props for being as great a wordsmith as any US Chief Executive. While taking the various roads that lead to this piece I read his famous Gettysburg Address, or rather refreshed myself with the words in manuscript form, for as a child I had memorized it.

At this site it’s possible to trace the slight revisions that Lincoln applied draft by draft to polish this concise statement of dedication. And the same site linked to another site that let me read (for the first time) Edward Everett’s main speech at the same Gettysburg dedication.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of how the two speeches that day in 1863 contrasted. It’s no legend. Everett’s speech lasted over two hours. Lincoln’s could have fitted his into a linked series of five Tweets today, and it takes a couple of minutes to read. Go ahead, read as much of Everett’s speech as you can. It’s the kind of grand utterance that could have caused the 19th Century to invent TLDNR 140 years sooner.

So, Lincoln could fashion a memorable, resonant phrase and express complex things concisely. That’s the kind of literary talent that leads one to ask if he wrote poetry. He did, but as far as we know, there’s not very much of it. He wrote some occasional, short, light verse. His serious poetic works consist of an attributed poem with a narrator speaking of suicide, and a three-part poem recalling his hometown.

Abe Lincoln in 1847

Abe Lincoln in his mid-30s, 1847, around the time he wrote today’s words.

 

It’s from the first part of that later Lincoln poem that I created today’s piece, “My Childhood Home I See Again.”  It was published anonymously through the efforts of a friend of his in 1847. Lincoln was in his troubled 30s when his longer poems were written, and he seems to have been suffering from depression, the depth and length of which is subject of much discussion among historical scholars.

The parts I used from “My Childhood Home I See Again”  tell much the same story as English poet Thomas Hardy’s The Self Unseeing,”  but Lincoln’s poem is more melancholy, even if he tries to make some pretense of it being only wistful. By the final couplet, Lincoln’s own words put in him the situation of George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo.”   I suppose one could also compare Lincoln and Hardy’s poems to my own pieceHomeopathic Hometown.”

For today’s music I used an acoustic guitar and my semi-acoustic Jack Casady bass guitar for the main accompaniment. I try to stay away from instrument-geekery most of the time here, but that bass was actually designed by the musician, it’s not some “paint it a different color and slap on a decal” marketing gimmick. I love its sound, as you may be able to tell from the mix today. To hear too much (or just enough) bass guitar, and Lincoln’s sad words as I set them to music, use the player below.

 

 

From Sunset to Star Rise

Today was the Autumn Equinox, which some use to mark the beginning Fall. Where I live it was very hot and muggy, hardly autumn-like at all, and even the reasonable breeze could not budge the heat. I went bicycling with my son, promising him ice-cream, which he accepted as adequate exchange, and picked up cold sandwiches for our supper, but in-between I worked on the setting for this piece, yet another by Christina Rossetti.

I wasn’t intending to return to Rossetti so soon, and I’m not sure how I ran into this poem, but it meshes so well with some others I featured here this month about summer and attitudes to love. I just couldn’t deny it.

Going beyond the last Rossetti poem of longing we featured here, or William Carlos Williams with his observation of nature’s dispassionate summer, or Edna St. Vincent Millay’s notice of a missing summer muse of comfort in herself, this one is more distressed. The speaker is depressed and is showing her friends away—it’s a fairly pure piece of Victorian melancholia. Will her friends notice she’s not keeping her garden up and bring her round some tea and biscuits? One hopes so.

Christina Rossetti charcol

Christina Rossetti: sadness that none-the-less sings in a lovely way

I know little of Christina Rossetti’s life, if she suffered from depression, or if this reflects a more temporary mood; but in whatever case, she fashioned a finely crafted lyric to present the experience. I find this sort of thing often in English poetry, sadness that none-the-less sings in a lovely way. Here is America we grew up some Blues, and we tend more to bargain with despair, or call it names and begin to insult its absurdity.

The title is a bit of puzzle to me, though. “From Sunset to Star Rise”  has something of a “It’ll get better” connotation. Was she trying to remind herself of some wisdom that could come from this, or that there is some mystery yet to work out?

Musically I wrote this on acoustic guitar and the full arrangement retains the acoustic guitar part with some disconsolate drums and slowly building synth parts. To hear it, use the player gadget below.

Intro to The Waste Land

Readers of these posts may recall a discussion of the theory that Emily Dickinson’s reclusive nature in later adulthood was caused by epilepsy and that her poem “I Felt a Funeral In My Brain”  may have been describing the auras experienced around epileptic seizure events.  I think it’s an interesting idea, a plausible one, but I also warned against reductionist explanations for art.

Even recognizing that danger, I’m about to risk that sort of thing again, for what I think are good reasons.

Is T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” introduced to students later and less often now than it was in my youth? If so, I suspect this is because “The Waste Land”  does not present itself as a friendly introduction to poetry. It seems proudly obscure. There’s no frank self-expression in it where a recognizable author/speaker tells us about their life and outlook. Instead, there’s a flurry of voices and characters that are barely, if even that, introduced.  And there’s no interesting story, no fable or tale with a twist that carries us along. There’s a shortage of obvious similes, no “fog comes on little cat’s feet” to introduce metaphor.

In my youth, all these shortcomings of “The Waste Land”  as a teaching tool were overlooked because it was a landmark in the rise of Modernism, that defining artistic movement of the first half of the 20th Century, and because it was full of the stuff that made up a Liberal Education: foreign phrases, cosmopolitan settings, wide-ranging cultural references to other literary works from across time.

Waste Land title page

I always find that a little Latin and Greek on the title page helps perk up the reader.

And now? The odds are that if T.S. Eliot was to stand up at a Moth story-telling stage or a slam poetry event and deliver “The Waste Land”  in whole or in part, that boos, snores, or some variety of non-pleasurable puzzlement would result. We are inured to a different kind of poetry, confused enough, bothered enough, by modernity and its incessant messages that Eliot’s fragments shored up against ruins seems to offer us no balm, no pleasure of recognition.

I’ll offer two keys, two aspects of “The Waste Land”  that can allow you entry into it. The first is: it’s intensely musical. The imagery, outside of “The Waste Land’s” overriding dry vs. wet scheme, never strays far from sounds, and all those unintroduced voices are like new strains in a composition. No wonder the Parlando project is drawn to it, because we believe that one can appreciate poetry without understanding its meaning, in the same way that you can appreciate music without being able to somehow explicate it.

The second entry point, the one that risks being reductionist, is that this is a poem written by someone suffering from depression. Whatever voice is speaking in the poem, it is heard and reflected out the mouth of someone who feels it has all gone wrong, someone who cannot fully trust any other feeling other than that—other than the emotion of fear that that is the reality that any other feeling would mask. Although it must sacrifice the music, the incandescent reading of the “The Waste Land”  by Fiona Shaw illuminates this aspect.

Today’s episode is just a part of the first part of “The Waste Land,”  but it’s the part the begins in April, our National Poetry Month. I don’t know if Eliot intended to refer to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” prologue (our last episode), but it sure seems to rhyme. The opening of Eliot’s series of tales has, like Chaucer’s prologue, rain, flowers, journeys and travelers; and later in the poem Eliot will in bring birdsongs and churches. And Chaucer, who begins singing in Spring merriment, introduces at the end of the prologue the promise of “Strange strands,” and tells us that the pilgrims may be taking the pilgrimage because they have been sick.

Fiona Shaw’s il miglior fabbro performance of the whole “The Waste Land” will take almost a half-hour to view. My audio piece for today will take less than 3 minutes and has music. To compare to the “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”  check out the previous post here. If you want to hear Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan taking a run at the same part of “The Waste Land”  as I performed—and making his own connection to Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloomed”  in Eliot’s opening lines, you can hear that here. But give mine a try first, using the player gadget that appears at the end of this post. Thanks for the likes and shares over the past few months, and as part of April’s #npm17, feel free to link to this blog or share this post on social media.